11 June 2010
29 Sivan 5770
As students complete their final exams this week, and our seniors prepare to graduate on Sunday, I marvel at how quickly the school year has passed and how much we all have learned and grown. I would like to share with you a wonderful moment that beautifully illustrates Gann’s Jewish educational mission.
Yesterday, one of our veteran teachers burst into my office with a huge smile on her face, eager to share a story about her class’s final exam experience. From the sheer joy and exuberance with which she raved about her students, you might have thought she was a novice teacher experiencing one of her first great lessons. In fact, she is an experienced teacher who was blessed to reap the fruits of the classroom culture and love of learning she has cultivated in her students throughout the year. In many ways, her description of her students’ “final exam” turns the entire notion of finals on its head.
For their final, instead of writing two essays on the Book of Amos, the students in her class chose to prepare an additional reading from Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Prophets, and, in place of one of their essays, to engage in what we call a seminar, a self-facilitated discussion around a particular text based on a central question or questions. In the introduction to The Prophets, Heschel writes about the ongoing legacy of the prophets and about “prophetic thinking.” In his words, “The situation of a person immersed in the prophets’ words is one of being exposed to a ceaseless shattering of indifference . . . for (the prophets) to be alive and present to us we must think, not about, but in the prophets, with their concern and their heart.” In other words, in order to understand the Book of Amos, our students must learn to think and to feel like Amos; they must learn to care about and respond to their world, not merely to observe it.
To begin the seminar, this teacher asked her students a simple question: “You have read the words of Amos. As you think about his words and their application to your world, how do you respond?” The students proceeded to reflect on whether or not their own Jewish practices are “from the heart,” on their privileged place in life in contrast to so many disadvantaged people in the world, on whether it is really possible for one person to change the world, and on whether or not there is still prophecy today (perhaps we’re just not listening carefully enough, one suggested!). As students in other classes finished their final exams and poured out of their classrooms, these students remained engaged in discussion.
Many high school students are so focused on just making it through their exams that they are not particularly concerned with what they have actually learned and certainly not interested in learning more. But for these students, ending the year with a seminar required them to apply their skills and knowledge to a new text and to examine themselves and their world in a new way. Like great learning and great assessment of learning, their “exam” was not summative, but instead generative. It was not a race to the finish but, rather, a new beginning.
As we conclude the school year, I am left with the beautiful image of these students pouring over text, challenging one another, responding to our world, and continuing the conversation long after the exam period ended. In the words of their teacher, “Tanakh class has ended . . . but the words of Amos and our students’ learning have not.”
Thank you to our students, teachers, and all of you for helping to create a school and a community where the learning is never over and where we push ourselves and each other to respond to our world with our minds, our hearts, and our actions. May we all have a restful and restorative summer vacation.
Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov,
Rabbi Marc Baker